25         To the editor of the ‘Observer’

 

[On 16 January 1938, the Observer published a letter, signed ‘Habit”, asking whether hobbits might have been suggested to Tolkien by Julian Huxley’s account of ‘the “little furry men” seen in Africa by natives and . . . at least one scientist’. The letter-writer also mentioned that a friend had ‘said she remembered an old fairy tale called “The Hobbit” in a collection read about 1904’, in which the creature of that name ‘was definitely frightening’. The writer asked if Tolkien would ‘tell us some more about the name and inception of the intriguing hero of his book . . . it would save so many research students so very much trouble in the generations to come. And, by the way, is the hobbit’s stealing of the dragon’s cup based on the cup-stealing episode in Beowulf? I hope so, since one of the book’s charms appears to be its Spenserian harmonizing of the brilliant threads of so many branches of epic, mythology, and Victorian fairy literature.’ Tolkien’s reply, though it was not intended for publication (see the conclusion of no. 26), was printed in the Observer on 20 February 1938.]

 

Sir, -- I need no persuasion: I am as susceptible as a dragon to flattery, and would gladly show off my diamond waistcoat, and even discuss its sources, since the Habit (more inquisitive than the Hobbit) has not only professed to admire it, but has also asked where I got it from. But would not that be rather unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.

However, with regard to the Habit’s principal question there is no danger: I do not remember anything about the name and inception of the hero. I could guess, of course, but the guesses would have no more authority than those of future researchers, and I leave the game to them.

I was born in Africa, and have read several books on African exploration. I have, since about 1896, read even more books of fairy-tales of the genuine kind. Both the facts produced by the Habit would appear, therefore, to be significant.

But are they? I have no waking recollection of furry pygmies (in book or moonlight); nor of any Hobbit bogey in print by 1904. I suspect that the two hobbits are accidental homophones, and am content* that they are not (it would seem) synonyms. And I protest that my hobbit did not live in Africa, and was not furry, except about the feet. Nor indeed was he like a rabbit. He was a prosperous, well-fed young bachelor of independent means. Calling him a ‘nassty little rabbit’ was a piece of vulgar trollery, just as ‘descendant of rats’ was a piece of dwarfish malice – deliberate insults to his size and feet, which he deeply resented. His feet, if conveniently clad and shod by nature, were as elegant as his long, clever fingers.

As for the rest of the tale it is, as the Habit suggests, derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story – not, however, Victorian in authorship, as a rule to which George MacDonald is the chief exception. Beowulf is among my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing, in which the episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at that point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same.

My tale is not consciously based on any other book – save one, and that is unpublished: the ‘Silmarillion’, a history of the Elves, to which frequent allusion is made. I had not thought of the future researchers; and as there is only one manuscript there seems at the moment small chance of this reference proving useful.

But these questions are mere preliminaries. Now that I have been made to see Mr Baggins’s adventures as the subject of future enquiry I realize that a lot of work will be needed. There is the question of nomenclature. The dwarf-names, and the wizard’s, are from the Elder Edda. The hobbit-names from Obvious Sources proper to their kind. The full list of their wealthier families is: Baggins, Boffin, Bolger, Bracegirdle, Brandybuck, Burrowes, Chubb, Grubb, Hornblower, Proudfoot, Sackville, and Took. The dragon bears its name – a pseudonym – the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb Smugan, to squeeze through a hole: a low philological jest. The rest of the names are of the Ancient and Elvish World, and have not been modernized.

And why dwarves? Grammar prescribes dwarfs; philology suggests that dwarrows would be the historical form. The real answer is that I knew no better. But dwarves goes well with elves; and, in any case, elf, gnome, goblin, dwarf are only approximate translations of the Old Elvish names for beings of not quite same kinds and functions.

These dwarves are not quite the dwarfs of better known lore. They have been given Scandinavian names, it is true; but that is an editorial concession. Too many names in the tongues proper to the period might have been alarming. Dwarvish was both complicated and cacophonous. Even early elvish philologists avoided it, and the dwarves were obliged to use other languages, except for entirely private conversation. The language of Hobbits was remarkably like English, as one would expect: they only lived on the borders of The Wild, and were mostly unaware of it. Their family names remain for the most part as well known and justly respected in this island as they were in Hobbiton and Bywater.

There is the matter of the Runes. Those used by Thorin and Co., for special purposes, were comprised in an alphabet of thirty-two letters (full list on application), similar to, but not identical, with the runes of Anglo-Saxon inscription. There is doubtless an historical connection between the two. The Feanorian alphabet, generally used at that time, was of Elvish origin. It appears in the curse inscribed on the pot of gold in the picture of Smaug’s lair, but had otherwise been transcribed (a facsimile of the original letter left on the mantelpiece can be supplied).

 

*

 

And what about the Riddles? There is work to be done here on the sources and analogues. I should not be at all surprised to learn that both the hobbit and Gollum will find their claim to have invented any other disallowed.

Finally, I present the future researcher with a little problem. The tale halted in the telling for about a year at two separate points: where are they? But probably that would have been discovered anyway. And suddenly I remember that the hobbit thought ‘Old fool’, when the dragon succumbed to blandishment. I fear that the Habit’s comment (and yours) will already be the same. But you must admit that the temptation was strong. – Yours, etc.,

                                    J. R. R. Tolkien.